“I am optimistic about the US’s future because more American business leaders are recognizing that they can no longer sit on the sidelines and must now engage the policies that will shape our country. The fact that leaders in the technology industry have taken such a strong stance in favor of thoughtful immigration policies is an example of this. Secondly, we live at a time when science and technology can be deployed to have massively positive effects on our economy and society, if we act with urgency and thoughtfulness. Finally, we live in a country with a constitution that aspires to equality and opportunity for all. While we have a tremendous amount of work to do, we have the fundamentals for a bright future.”
I had the pleasure of interviewing Mohamad Ali. Mohamad is President and CEO of Boston-based Carbonite, leading a global team in developing and delivering the next generation of data protection solutions. Driven by a passion for technology, Mohamad previously served as Chief Strategy Officer at Hewlett Packard where he played a pivotal role in the company’s turnaround. At IBM, Mohamad led the creation of the firm’s eight billion dollar business analytics software unit.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us the story of how you grew up?
For the first eleven years of my life, I lived with my mom, dad and two younger siblings in Guyana, a small country on the northern border of Brazil. My mom began working in the rice fields at age twelve and couldn’t afford shoes. My dad grew up in a family of subsistence farmers. Through hard work and perseverance, my mom eventually became a teacher and my dad a police officer. Neither of them earned much, but enough to afford a home made from wood instead of mud and thatch. I remember not having running water and walking long distances to the village well. My parents knew that education was the key to a better life and, after arriving in the United States, did everything they could to give me that opportunity. I eventually made it to Stanford University and earned degrees in computer engineering, history, and electrical engineering.
Was there a particular trigger point that made you emigrate to the US? Can you tell a story?
In 1970, the year I was born, Guyana’s dictator declared the country a cooperative republic and deepened relations with Cuba, North Korea, and the Soviet Union. Imports were banned, including flour. The country started nationalizing businesses. By 1979, the private sector was reduced to only 10% of the economy. There was widespread shortage of food, fuel, water, and electricity. My parents realized that it was no longer a good place to raise children and in 1980, decided it was time to leave.
Can you tell us the story of how you came to the USA? What was that experience like?
In 1981, my mom and I arrived at JFK Airport in New York with a total of $34 in our pockets. I remember the experience well. Nearly everything was different, and we felt lost. One of the first things my mom and I saw at the airport was a machine unlike anything we had seen before. We paused before using it, to ensure we had a plan to use it safely. It was an escalator! At that moment, standing at the bottom of what seemed to be a technological marvel, I could not have imagined that one day I’d be the CEO of a technology company. It was three long years before our family, including my younger brother and sister, were reunited. In 1991, we became U.S. citizens.
Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped make the move more manageable? Can you share a story?
Definitely. Mrs. Schiff was a math teacher at my middle school who took it upon herself to mentor me. She had one of the very few computers in the school — a Commodore — and she invited me to come in the mornings before school to learn to use it. She eventually encouraged me to apply to the prestigious Stuyvesant High School, which required an entrance exam. I didn’t know I was supposed to prepare for the test, and just showed up with two #2 pencils. I barely passed. Mrs. Schiff believed that all students, regardless of wealth or origin, deserved the same opportunity for a quality education, and she took it upon herself to help me and others.
I had another informal mentor in high school, Mr. Realmuto, a shop teacher. Every day after school, I would go to his wood shop and build things, and he would give me advice on any conceivable subject. I didn’t take classes with him; he was just my friend and mentor. He encouraged me to apply to Stanford University. I went on to work in senior positions at IBM and Hewlett-Packard. I could not have achieved this without the help of people like Mrs. Schiff and Mr. Realmuto.
So how are things going today?
Today, I am CEO of Carbonite, a Boston-based data protection company. Our company provides jobs for approximately 1,000 people, and our cloud service protects over 100,000 business from disasters including cyber-attacks. We have built a strong company with a culture of caring deeply about our customers and our communities.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
It’s important to me to help others carve paths to their own success. Last year, Carbonite created the Carbonite Charitable Fund, which aims to narrow the technology skills gap in communities where our company operates, such as Boston, Indianapolis, and Salt Lake City. The fund supports education initiatives that help prepare tomorrow’s workforce with the skills needed to participate in the digital economy. For example, the fund supports the Utah STEM Action Center to create over fifty girls’ coding clubs in the state, and Boston’s Hack.Diversity which places minority students in technology internships. I am a firm believer that America draws its global competitive advantage from its openness to new people and new ideas. Last year, I spoke at a naturalization ceremony at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library to several hundred new citizens and emphasized the importance of giving back to the communities we now live in. Like Mrs. Schiff and Mr. Realmuto helped me, it is now my responsibility and that of our new citizens to help others, regardless of race, creed, or place of origin. I’m particularly proud that my children who, individually and through the Ali Family Fund, have become engaged advocates for those less fortunate.
You have first hand experience with the US immigration system. If you had the power, which three things would you change to improve the system?
There are many more than three, and it’s not just about immigrants. It’s about creating opportunity for all Americans, including those born here. I would immediately establish policies to encourage immigrants who earn advanced degrees at our universities to stay in America and contribute to creating more jobs for all Americans. Today, we encourage them to go home and create those jobs in their home countries. That makes no economic sense. We should also create a path to citizenship for Dreamers. Both Republicans and Democrats believe this is good for our country. Lastly, we need to live up to our American values by treating people with dignity during due process. The immigration issue is inherently intertwined with what we do for Americans who have lived here for generations. Our leadership in Washington D.C. needs to focus on education and skills retraining that allow Americans born here to share in our growing technology-driven economy and not just blame their economic status on immigrants — who, as a whole, are net creators of jobs for all Americans.
Can you share “5 keys to achieving the American dream” that others can learn from you? Please share a story or example for each.
First and foremost, embrace new ideas. Our world is changing fast and new ideas emerge from all corners. When his daughter lost a college paper because her computer crashed, one of Carbonite’s co-founders saw an opportunity to apply the “cloud,” a new idea back then, to protect businesses and individuals in a way superior to what existed. Next, pursue your interests passionately. Don’t let anyone tell you your dreams are not attainable. I once lived near poverty, but I had a passion for technology and was determined to make something of my life. When you start out with next to nothing, you learn to scramble and be creative in your professional pursuits. What was a weakness became a source of strength and enabled me to pursue my passion. This brings me to my third key: work smart but also work hard. Dreams and goals aren’t attained overnight, no matter how good the idea. Fourth, stay honest in every endeavor. Finally, and possibly most important, make a positive difference in this world.
We know that the US needs improvement. But are there 3 things that make you optimistic about the US’s future?
There are many reasons to be concerned, but also reasons to be optimistic. The move to decrease immigration to the U.S. is a growing threat to an economy that depends on the strength of our talent pool. Forty percent of Fortune 500 companies were founded by immigrants or the children of immigrants, and our next generation of great companies will be no different.
I am optimistic because more American business leaders are recognizing that they can no longer sit on the sidelines and must now engage the policies that will shape our country. The fact that leaders in the technology industry have taken such a strong stance in favor of thoughtful immigration policies is an example of this. Secondly, we live at a time when science and technology can be deployed to have massively positive effects on our economy and society, if we act with urgency and thoughtfulness. Finally, we live in a country with a constitution that aspires to equality and opportunity for all. While we have a tremendous amount of work to do, we have the fundamentals for a bright future.
Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might see this. 🙂
Melinda Gates. Very few have made such a difference in our world. As a computer scientist, a business leader and a philanthropist, she sets an example for all of us — adults and children of all genders. The Gates Foundation’s mission to reduce poverty and increase educational opportunities align deeply with my own interests and the goals of the Carbonite Charitable Fund, and has been an inspiration to me. Melinda Gates and her husband have set a new standard of responsibility for the rest of us.
What is the best way our readers can follow you on social media?
You can follow me on Twitter @mhsali.
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!
Originally published at medium.com